Creating affordable housing: Learning from Vancouver

What responsibilities do cities, with their relatively limited tax base, have to ensure its citizens have decent accommodation?

Downtown Vancouver. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

What responsibilities do cities, with their relatively limited tax base, have to ensure its citizens have decent accommodation?

Some, including some in the lower mainland do nothing, claiming it is the responsibility of another layer of government. Some take token measures, hope the problem goes away and then hope no one notices when it doesn’t. And some, like the City of Vancouver, take it very seriously indeed. 

When it comes to housing, affordable and otherwise, Vancouver is a roiling cauldron of debate, disputes and demonstrations. In the pages of this and other media, the rhetoric over who is to blame and what should be done has raged for years.                       

This week, Vancouver welcomes hundreds of local, national and international housing experts to its Re:address Summit on ways to address housing unaffordability. 

The summit, according to City messaging, is an opportunity to learn, share best practices and explore creative solutions from other cities struggling with similar affordability challenges. I’m guessing most of the learning will be on the part of the visitors. 

Learning from Vancouver is not a new phenomenon. Since it hosted the first UN Habitat conference in 1976, a mini cottage industry has emerged to host visitors from Canada and around the world to visit projects and learn how policy tools such as public benefits, inclusionary zoning and density bonusing can be applied.

Let’s consider a few recent numbers. In its 2011-2014 Capital Plan, Vancouver set an affordable housing target of 1,950 units or 650 units per year.

This target was met (at the end of 2014 2,050 units were either completed or in the development/construction pipeline) and renewed in the 2015-2018 Capital Plan. Included in these Capital Plans is about $22.0M per year of City funds allocated for the creation of new affordable rental housing.

About one-third of the Capital Plan targets will be created through Vancouver’s public benefits process. The remaining will be achieved by partnering with local not-for-profit agencies, Foundations, other levels of government (primarily BC Housing) and by using the City’s own land, zoning tools, and other financial resources.

Some will argue it’s not good enough and perhaps they’re correct but let’s compare it to another municipality. 

The City of Ottawa’s population is 30% larger than Vancouver’s. It has one of the country’s highest median incomes and has (unlike Vancouver) jurisdictional responsibility for housing. It has high rents, a serious shortage of affordable housing, and high rates of homelessness. So let’s look at what Ottawa is doing to provide decent accommodation for its vulnerable residents.  

According to the 2015 statistics, 7,000 individuals used Ottawa’s emergency shelters and 10,100 applicants were on the waiting list for affordable housing which has a wait time of up to five years. Only 34 new affordable housing units were created: the lowest since 2005. Between 2011 and 2015 Ottawa created about 120 units per year.

Ottawa’s ten-year Housing and Homelessness Plan outlines a community goal to end long-term homelessness. It provides aspirational statements about partnerships, building on collective strengths etc., but no firm targets for creating units and few concrete suggestions for using the City’s own resources. And despite the Plan, Ottawa is reducing the resources it commits to this critical issue.  

Data compiled from City Ottawa budget documents indicate that while Ottawa contributed between $4.0M and $5.0M of its own funds towards the creation of new units between 2012 and 2014, it doesn’t plan to contribute any of its own funds between 2015 and 2019. Instead, the City plans to replace its funds with Federal/Provincial funding instead of supplementing these funds. 

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